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Top U.S. ambassador decries state of foreign service under Trump, Tillerson

| Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, 7:00 p.m.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks with a member of the audience before President Trump arrives for a meeting with U.S. and Japanese Business Leaders at the U.S. Ambassador's residence, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Tokyo.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks with a member of the audience before President Trump arrives for a meeting with U.S. and Japanese Business Leaders at the U.S. Ambassador's residence, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Tokyo.

The State Department is in disarray and losing essential leaders at a "dizzying speed" under the Trump administration, according to an essay written by a top ambassador.

Plummeting morale, a rash of top diplomats jumping ship and a hiring freeze imposed under Trump have sent shock waves through the Foreign Service, wrote Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the president of the Foreign Service officers' union.

"There is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution — and to the global leadership that depends on us. There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed," Stephenson, the former ambassador to Panama, wrote in an essay included in the American Foreign Service Association's monthly publication.

Stephenson, who has been the head of the organization since 2015, writes that, despite Trump's promises to make America stronger, dismantling the diplomatic system is making the United States more vulnerable.

"While I do my best, as principal advocate for our institution and as a seasoned American diplomat, to model responsible, civil discourse, there is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution—and to the global leadership that depends on us," she writes.

In August, an agency-wide survey found State Department employees were concerned about the changes taking place under the Trump administration.

Secretary of State Tillerson has vowed a "redesign" to make the State Department more efficient and sustainable.

His hiring freeze has left several top roles vacant.

The agency has lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors since January.

Career ministers, equivalent to the military's three-star generals, are down from 33 to 19.

Minister counselors, two-star equivalents, have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today, according to Stephenson.

Making matters worse, and lowering morale agency-wide, Trump's budget proposal calls for a 28 percent funding cut for State.

Stephenson said the moves by the Trump administration have raised several questions about the future of the agency.

"Why such a focus on slashing staffing at State? Why such a focus on decapitating leadership? How do these actions serve the stated agenda of making the State Department stronger?" she asks in her letter to her colleagues.

Tillerson has said he has the "utmost respect for the Foreign Service officer corps here, and they're vital ... and critical to the country's ability to carry out its foreign policy," telling the New York Times magazine he doesn't understand the backlash to the redesign. "I'm mystified by it. I'm perplexed by it."

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